North Korea: Time to start talking

I've been a little quiet of late on the topic of Korea, although I've been thinking about it a lot. Last night I was listening to a couple of veteran North Asia watchers, and it crystalised my thoughts on the current reality:

The US's attempts at isolating North Korea have failed at preventing the development of nuclear capability. South Korea's sunshine policy of engagement has failed at containing North Korea. But the actions of each actor has undermined the actions of the other, so both isolation and engagement has been half-hearted. So where do we go from here?

My hunch is there's only one way to go, and it isn't reflected in popular opinion about the subject. In record time the UN Security Council raced toward further isolation, creating a resolution that would freeze out the North Koreans even more than the absurdity of their own Juche policy does. If it wasn't for the reluctance of the Chinese, the resolution would be even harsher. Some of the restrictions are necessary - such as those that seek to prevent export and proliferation of weapons. But the thrust of it seems to be to further isolate the regime.

Here's the problem: the regime has been isolated for five decades, and it hasn't fallen. Kim Jong-il relies on isolation to perpetuate his own power: it's hard to tell people that life is good when they know through comparison that it isn't. But keep them ignorant, and you can persuade them of anything.Further isolation won't endanger the regime: instead, it will bolster it. Even more peasants will starve, the propaganda will become even more shrill, the nukes will remain on a hair-trigger, and the regime will stand.

Also, if backed into a corner, the North Koreans might be tempted to use the nuclear capability that they have. The only thing worse than a man with a gun is an angry, isolated man with a gun.

The biggest threat to Kim Jong-il's hold on power is engagement. The flow of foreign goods into North Korea will likely be followed by the flow of foreign ideas, including pluralism, disseent and the affluence of the modern world. With these come threats to the suffocating hegemony enjoyed by the ruling elite. Watch the way that Romania's communists crumbled in 1989, with ideas of freedom slipping through the cracks in the iron curtain.

Although the push for isolation is gathering momentum, there are some who opt for a different tact, and they're not the usual suspects, either. Former Secretary of State James Baker has jumped on board, as this piece from Nicholas Kristof in last week's New York Times shows (thanks to Colin Rule who does what the NYT doesn't, and makes the article available for non-subscribers):

“If there’s one overriding lesson from North Korea’s apparent nuclear test, it’s this: We need to negotiate directly even with hostile and brutal regimes.

It’s probably too late to clean up the mess that President Bush has made on the Korean peninsula, but there is time to apply the lesson to Syria and especially Iran — where we may soon be facing a third military conflict in a Muslim country.

As former Secretary of State James Baker noted in an ABC News interview on Sunday: “I believe in talking to your enemies. … It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”…

“By not having any contact, we’ve lost any way of controlling or directing the outcome,” noted James Laney, a longtime Korea specialist and former ambassador to South Korea. “As this test indicates, we’re completely out of the picture.” …

To show that talking with enemies doesn’t mean rolling over, we can also insist on raising human rights issues. American conservatives have led the way in protesting brutality in North Korea, but the protests simply aren’t effective. The U.S. government could add to the pressure by going public with satellite images of concentration camps and publicizing other intelligence about North Korean human rights abuses.

The challenge is larger than North Korea, though — it concerns how to stand up to all of the world’s rogue regimes. Notably, in the two where Mr. Bush has tried engagement he has enjoyed bits of success. Those are Sudan and Libya.


In the short term, I can see the case for isolation. An unpredictable regime like the one in North Korea will have no compunction in selling their nuclear knowledge the other rogue states or terrorist groups, and preventing this needs to be a high priority. In the medium and long term, though, the objective needs to be to bring DPRK back into the community of nations and show its long-suffering people that their interests haven't been forgotten by the rest of the world, even if they have been forgotten by their own leadership.

Can we isolate North Korea into submission? It hasn't worked for five decades, and there's no reason to think it will start now.

Comments

John Lee said…
Although the push for isolation is gathering momentum, there are some who opt for a different tact, and they're not the usual suspects, either

I'm not sure what you mean by that. Many mainstream or conservative voices have argued for a flexible attitude to rogue states (other e.g.'s - Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Malcolm Farser); it's not just the George Galloway crowd who advocate talking with monsters. The fact that this approach now seems radical shows how far neocon-ism has marginalised other foreign policy discourse.
Anonymous said…
Ari,

You say that "The flow of foreign goods into North Korea will likely be followed by the flow of foreign ideas". That may be the case or it may not. After all the Middle East is full of people consuming foreign goods yet foreign ideas have had a harder time gaining acceptance. Either way though North Korea's isolation isn't going to end because the rest of the world wants it. As you say its isolation is largely self-imposed and ending isolation would be the biggest threat to the regime. So even if the rest of the world tried to engage with NK, why would the regime allow it?
Simon

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